It was coming closer; the pulsing, rushing whine of a noise.
Mira was lying in bed, unable to sleep for the headache pounding in her temples again, listening to the distant rattle of trucks on the motorway and the sounds of the planes on the flight-path overhead.
But this was different.
Maybe it’s a meteor. Or an asteroid, or whatever they’re called. Going to wipe out the earth like happened to the dinosaurs. Maybe it’s an alien invasion.
She rolled over, groping for her cigarettes and lighter in the orange glow of the streetlamps through the blind, the murky light glinting on the empty bottle beside her bed.
And then it hit.
Mira opened her eyes. With difficulty; the left one opened better than the right. The bright light stabbed through her head.
They came to her. Not rescuers, not invaders, not angels. Just nurses, impossibly young in their white uniforms, cheerful.
You had a cerebral bleed, that was what they were telling you. A stroke.
You don’t remember? That’s normal. You were sedated for a few days.
Don’t worry. There’s some damage, but we’ll get you started on physio…
No, Mira thought. No, that isn’t what happened. It can’t be, I’m only thirty-seven. There was a meteor, or aliens, or something, and…
“The children,” she tried to say, and she didn’t recognise her own voice, the words coming out awkward and slurred. “My children, they were downstairs…”
“They’re fine,” a nurse reassured her. “They’re with your ex-husband. With their father.”
Mira closed her eyes in relief, and because it hurt to keep them open in the stark light.
Not my ex-husband, she would have said if she had the words and the ability to form them. Just my ex.
“The children,” she asked him when he came in, looking down at her with that faint disgust.
“They’re waiting outside,” he said. “With Karen.”
With Karen. Of course. Karen with her bobbed hair and Boden dresses, and that diamond glittering on her finger next to the white-gold wedding band.
I don’t believe in marriage, Mike always used to say. I don’t believe in marriage to you, was what he meant. It’s just a piece of paper. But it turned out without that piece of paper, ten years and two children together counted for nothing.
“Be reasonable,” Mira, he was saying. “You’re not in a position to look after them. You could be in here for weeks. And that flat’s hardly ideal for them anyway. Karen’s been great, she’s been helping them with their homework, arranging play dates with other kids, doing crafts and baking and all kinds of activities. Course, since I got that promotion, we can afford for her to stay at home.”
She saw that cruel little smile play over his face, felt the familiar rage and hate rising in her throat, the bitter-metal taste of it.
“Didn’t I tell you?” he asked lightly. “We’re pregnant.”
“Just go,” Mira said through gritted teeth.
Leaning on the frame they’d left by her bed, she managed to shuffle over to the window. She pressed her fingers against the glass, rested her forehead on it.
Mira stared out, trying to focus. Her vision was blurry, and she wouldn’t see them anyway ten storeys down, the perfect little family walking away.
I wish I’d never had them, she told herself, the thought clenching tight like a fist. I can’t bear this. I wish I’d never had them, better that than lose them like this.
Her fingers fumbled with the window catch, clumsy, useless. In frustration she shoved at it hard with her arm, and the window flew open. Cold air rushed in.
You don’t mean it.
She edged closer, stared down at the street far below.
Don’t I? Maybe I should have done this years ago. Wouldn’t it have been better? If none of this had ever been?
I don’t know.
Mira opened her eyes.
Glass, shattering, all around her.
“Mira? You all right? God, that one was close.” Yumei caught hold of her hand, pulling her up from the bed. “Careful, there’s glass everywhere. Here, put these on.”
Mira slid her feet into the flip-flops, stepping carefully among the shards of glass on the floor. She’d cut her hand, she realised, on a sliver so sharp she hadn’t even felt it, blood trickling between her fingers and down the inside of her wrist.
“They say stay in the building,” Yumei said. “They say it’s supposed to be the safest place.”
“Do you think they’re right?”
“The block’s earthquake-proof. Not like it’s going to make much difference in the end.”
They went out onto the balcony, the city spread out below their high-rise vantage point, the globes of light hanging ominous in the sky above them.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Mira said.
“We knew it was coming.”
Yes. They’d seen it on the news, when the news was still running, New York, Johannesburg, Tokyo, now them. No surprise, right?
“It’s different when you see it for real,” Mira said. Different when you’re the one bleeding, when you can smell the smoke yourself, when it’s your beloved city laid to ruins and destruction. “All the work we did. What was it all for?”
“Thank god we never had kids, eh?” Yumei said.
You never wanted to anyway. You never wanted to, the social work and all that was enough for you, but I did, you know how much I did but I loved you so I stayed and now it’s too late.
“What do you say to joining up?” Yumei was saying, oblivious to Mira’s distress.
She’d talked about this before, when the invasion first started, and everyone rushing to join their local unit and fight for their world. “A bit eleventh hour now, but better late than never, and you never know.”
“We can’t win,” Mira said. She rubbed her forearm across her face. She could taste the blood. “What’s the point? You go if you want, leave me. I’m tired.”
“You’re always tired,” Yumei said. She kept staring straight out.
“Do you think it would’ve been better,” Mira asked her, looking at her profile against the black sky, “if none of this had ever been? You and me, all the good we tried to do, everything? Instead of seeing it all destroyed like this?”
Yumei shrugged, barely listening. They talked past each other more often than not these days.
“I don’t know. Do you?”
“I want to go back,” Mira said, not knowing even what she meant.
Yumei turned to look at her at last, a distant, distracted look in her eyes.
She opened her eyes.
It was dark. Except it was light at the same time, the daylight all dim and wrong. It was always this way now.
She scrambled up from where she’d been sleeping in the corner of the cave, went slowly outside. The sky was a muddy red colour. She started to cough with the black dust in the air.
She saw him, his dark silhouette on the cliff edge, and went over to stand beside him. He didn’t respond, even when she flicked her tail around to brush the dust off his scales.
“It’s cold,” she said at last.
“The dust’s blotting out the sun,” he said, his voice sounding dull and flat. “It’s still rising. Going to get colder before it gets warmer, that’s what they say. Hundred years of winter, could be.” He hunched his shoulders, wings jerking restlessly away from his body, and she knew he was thinking of those eggs, back in the cave.
“This is the end of us, isn’t it?” she said. “All of us. The trees are going to die, and the plants and the sea boiling and the air choking us…”
He nodded, slowly. Stretched back his wings in a sharp ‘V’, staring down into the sulfurous magma lakes pooling with molten death below them. She knew what he was thinking now as well. Didn’t she always know, her other half, her own dear heart and soul? He drew in a painful breath, and didn’t she hear his words before he even spoke?
“Would it be better,” he asked her, “if none of this had ever been?”
“I don’t know,” she began to say. But there were still those eggs, those precious eggs. Hold them close, that was all she knew.
“No,” Mira said instead. And folding her burned and broken wings she turned away from the cliff edge, and went towards the cave that was her home.
Sarah L. Byrne is a computational biologist in London. Her short speculative fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various magazines and anthologies, including Silver Blade, Kzine and Stupefying Stories, and she also writes about real science. She can be found on the web at sarahbyrne.org. She says:
The initial inspiration of this story was simply living under the flight path of a small airport, though fortunately the rest of Mira’s troubles are entirely fictional. It was also a reflection on the way certain themes (love, loss, hope, despair) are constant regardless of the place or time or reality, as are the fundamental choices we have to make in life.
Illustration is by Peter Tan (rainbow lorikeet photograph) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.